Posts

Thanksgiving Before Christmas

If you’re like me (or Hobby Lobby), your Christmas tree goes up before the turkey is served on Thanksgiving Day.

I know, I know. So many of you are shaking your heads already.

People have big opinions on when trees, music, lights, and even coffee cups should appear for the Christmas season.

And while this topic is debated mostly in good fun, it serves as a small sample of the polarized and divided cultural climate we all seem to find ourselves in these days.

But, even though I’m on the Christmas-as-soon-as-you-want side of this debate, I’m willing to find the middle ground here and admit that Thanksgiving does not get the focus and attention it should.

Really, it’s fitting that Thanksgiving comes before Christmas — not because we need another way to decorate with pumpkins, but because the entire Christian life should be marked by giving thanks. Even, and sometimes especially, in the times before we enjoy the blessings of God’s gifts, times when we are tired and unsure, and times that are hard.

In fact, the history of the Thanksgiving holiday in our nation is instructive for how disciples of Jesus can rightly approach giving thanks to God.

The holiday of Thanksgiving has been celebrated on and off in the United States since 1789. President Abraham Lincoln made it an official national holiday in 1863, proclaiming it, “a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father.”

If you don’t remember from history class, Lincoln was the president of the United States from 1861 to 1865 — the same years as the Civil War. In this war, 618,222 men died, which is far and away the most casualties in our nation’s history. It was undoubtedly one of the most challenging and divisive periods America has ever experienced.

And yet, in the middle of this time — before the end of the war — Lincoln asked the nation to give thanks to our good Father in heaven.

And long before Lincoln, there was the Apostle Paul.

Paul suffered for his faith in Jesus. He was beaten, persecuted, imprisoned, and eventually martyred. And yet, these are Paul’s words written to the people of the church:

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

— 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

Throughout the gospels, we see Jesus giving thanks to his Father.

He gives thanks for the bread God provides before he distributes to the hungry crowd. He gives thanks to God before the resurrection of Lazarus. He gives thanks to his Father before he breaks the bread and pours the wine that represents his broken body and his blood, fully knowing what these symbols will mean for him the next day.

He demonstrates thanksgiving for good gifts and thanksgiving in suffering.

The Greek root of Eucharist (the fancy word for “The Lord’s Supper”) can actually be translated as “thanksgiving.”

When we take the Lord’s Supper together, we are remembering God’s good gift of his son, who died for our sins and was resurrected as our king. We remember the past and give thanks. We also give thanks for the present gifts and blessings God has given us, from our daily bread to his presence among us.

So we can give thanks for the Advent of Christ — the Christmas season — resting in the truth that God can be trusted. We can give thanks, knowing full well that we, like Lincoln, like Paul, and like Christ, will experience discord and suffering in this life, but that God can be trusted through it all. And we can give thanks for the coming Advent: the return of Jesus when all things are made new.

So, this holiday season, whether we are struggling or celebrating, whether we have lots or little, whether we prefer pumpkins or trees, let’s give thanks together.

Let us be thankful for God who gifted us with his only beloved Son.

Let us be thankful for the good gifts we enjoy now.

Let us be thankful for the promise of gifts to come.

Thanksgiving before Christmas. Thanksgiving for Christmas. Thanksgiving always.


 

The Immanence and Transcendence of God

Christmas brings with it a “comfortable” view of Jesus. Like Ricky Bobby in the movie Talladega Nights, we love the image of “Dear tiny Jesus, in your golden-fleece diapers, with your tiny, little, fat, balled-up fists pawing at the air.” There’s a tender vulnerability in a baby that allows us to approach him without the fear usually inspired by the presence of God himself. This is the beauty of the incarnation – a God who has lowered himself to take on human frailty and dwell in our midst.

Unfortunately, there can be a danger in our Ricky Bobby thinking, picking and choosing the version of Jesus who most appeals to us while ignoring the aspects of his character that are more complicated or difficult. Despite the comfortable feelings that this minimization can bring, our concept of God can begin to feel inadequate to the difficulties we face. We need a God of power and might, one whose purpose is more significant than soothing us with warm, fuzzy feelings.

There is an increasing longing within our culture for something beyond ourselves – a spiritual desire for a greatness beyond our own achievements and effort and a power that can transform our lives. The human heart yearns for something more: more glorious, more grand, more worthy.

Only in Scripture can we find a picture of God who is both perfectly transcendent and truly immanent — infinitely beyond us and yet personally with us.

Transcendence is that aspect of God’s character that recognizes his position above and beyond all that he created. He is great, impenetrable, and matchless. His immanence recognizes that he graciously enters into his creation, working and acting within the world that he has made. The gospel message is most effective when we hold both attributes of God in balance, neither minimizing his transcendence to increase our comfort nor minimizing his personal nature to satisfy our reason. When we present both aspects of God’s character equally, his goodness is magnified.

The Lord is high above all nations,

and his glory above the heavens!

Who is like the Lord our God,

who is seated on high,

who looks far down

on the heavens and the earth?

– Psalm 113:4-6

Here the psalmist praises God for his transcendence — placing God in his rightful place “above all nations,” filled with authority, and independent from his creation. Unbound by space or time, he is infinite, omnipresent, and sovereign over all. Our God is above even the heavens themselves, beyond any need that we could fulfill, and past the limits of our finite understanding. This is no small God, able to be pacified or distracted. Our only right response is a posture of reverence, awe, and humility.

But the truth of God’s transcendence does not contradict his personal interactions with us. Rather, it increases the value of that relationship. The next verses in the same psalm paint a picture of an immanent God of love:

He raises the poor from the dust

and lifts the needy from the ash heap,

to make them sit with princes,

with the princes of his people.

He gives the barren woman a home,

making her the joyous mother of children.

Praise the Lord!

– Psalm 113:7-9

The mercy of God overflows from this passage. His consideration for the needy, his reversal of their suffering, his care for the childless all indicate that there is no suffering he cannot see. Even the most invisible and devalued in our society are treasured and sustained by the God who is present with us; the God revealed in the gospel of Matthew as Immanuel (1:23). Jesus displayed this same compassion in his earthly ministry as he healed the sick, touched the leper, and wiped the tears from women’s eyes.

But the mercy of God doesn’t negate his infinite nature, for only his complete freedom allows him to right these wrongs. God’s immanence gives him awareness of and compassion for our suffering and sin. God’s transcendence gives him the power to heal, rescue, and redeem. Because he is beyond the limits of all we understand, he can reverse the fortunes of those who seem inevitably downtrodden. And nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the incarnation and atoning work of Christ.

Though the Son of God was completely, utterly divine, he stepped down to earth and entered the womb of a woman. He took on a human nature in order to live among us. And in his death, he paid for our sins against an infinitely holy God as no mere human could have done, for his transcendent nature bore an infinite cost.

Our God is beautifully personal, and we should rejoice in his invitation to intimacy with him.

As we anticipate and celebrate Christmas this season, may we be reminded that the little babe in the manger was also our infinitely transcendent King lifted on high, who in humility descended to dwell with us.

God is both further from us, and nearer to us, than any other being.

– C.S. Lewis


 

Out of the Silence

Let me admit this up front: I am that person that annoys you about Christmas.

My tree has already been up for weeks, our lights are on outside, and I’ve been listening to Christmas songs since the day after Halloween.

I love the Christmas season because it’s a time of celebration and beauty, generosity and joy, family and friends, crackling fires and twinkle lights. But this year feels different for us all. Advent, the traditional season of anticipation, has a new and deeper meaning as we long for better days.

For many people I love, this year has been the worst.

Many have lost their health, their homes, their normal lives, their retirement, and much more. We are all in need of a change. We are all longing for a better future.

In the struggles of 2020, I am reminded that as much as I love the fun that Christmastime brings, Advent is really a time of hope. It’s a time of waiting, of trusting, of yearning for our Messiah. It is a time to remember that God steps into the midst of a broken world to be with us – to rescue us at just the right moment.

The time period between Malachi, the last book in the Old Testament, and the birth of Christ is known as intertestamental silence. The Old Testament ends with the promise of a Messiah and covenants to fulfill, and the people of God are left in anticipation. But for more than 400 years, there were no prophets; God was not speaking to his people. It would have been easy for God’s people to believe that his plan had stalled, that perhaps his purposes and promises had been thwarted.

But a closer look at this time reveals just how much God was doing to prepare the world for Jesus and the spread of his good news. 

The unfaithfulness of God’s people led to their exile. Although the temple was modestly rebuilt and their return was permitted, not everyone returned to Jerusalem. While this season brought great suffering for the Jewish people, it also resulted in circumstances that were vital to the coming gospel explosion.

During the intertestamental period, the Romans came to power. With their rise came roads, government, and a universal culture, connecting the empire together.  There was a common language throughout all of the empire (Greek) so that the scattered people could all communicate. And synagogues were built all over Asia Minor so that the dispersed Jews could worship in their own distant communities.

Although the people of the day couldn’t see it, God was not idle. He was at work and used the pain and disappointment of exile and oppression to prepare the world for the Gospel. The Roman government’s execution method would bring about the promised sacrifice of the Son. Roman roads straddled the empire, creating safe paths for Paul to travel on his missionary journeys. The New Testament scriptures would be written in the common tongue of the known world. The scattered synagogues would form the basis for a network of churches, where Paul would preach the gospel of a messiah to those who were familiar with the Jewish customs and beliefs.

For many of us, God feels distant in this moment. We struggle to understand what God is doing and find it difficult to trust in his plan and providence.

But just as before, God is at work right now in the seeming silence. He is at work while we wait, while we suffer, and while we are confused. Though we may not hear him or see him – though he may seem far away – we can trust that he is present and active.

For hundreds of years, not just months, God’s people wondered where he was. While we look forward to the return of Jesus, or even just to better days, let us rest in this time of Advent, commemorating the moment when God entered our world in the most profound, tangible, and transformative way: sending his only Son, God himself, to enter into this broken world and save us.

God is moving in our lives, his promises are true, and he is faithful. He is at work in us through his Spirit, transforming us and speaking to us, in the midst of whatever pain we experience. He is at work in the world as the Gospel still spreads to the ends of the earth.

Advent is a time of celebration, but it is also a time to reflect on our need to trust in God – to believe that his promises are true and his love is enduring.

As we anticipate celebrating the birth of Christ and hope for better things to come, let’s take this time to remember God’s faithfulness. May we embrace the waiting, trusting that God is working all things for our good and his glory.

 

“The thrill of hope, a weary world rejoices.”


I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

There is a deep nostalgia I have wrapped in Christmas songs. I remember the huge stack of Christmas vinyl records that we would put on our family record player, letting them roll while the fire crackled in the fireplace. We’d listen to the classic carols and then also some really goofy songs that always made us laugh like, I Want A Hippopotamus for Christmas.

I love when songs have a story that roots their meaning in more than just a rhyme and the Christmas season is full of them even amidst songs about Santa and hippos.

There is one song in particular that I rarely listen through without being moved. The turn of the lyrics is so strong and purposeful. It doesn’t tell the original story of Christmas, but is more about what the birth of Jesus meant and continues to mean.

“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” was a song written from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow back in 1863. No doubt, you ran across Longfellow’s works such as “Paul Revere’s Ride” back in high school or college in an English class, but the poem entitled “Christmas Bells” was written from a moment of epiphany in his own life on Christmas Day in 1863.

The United States was squarely in the middle of the terror of the Civil War. There was a lack of unity across the whole country. Loss, pain, and frustration were everywhere. Longfellow himself had lost his wife in a fire two years earlier, and he had just received word that his son had been badly wounded in battle. He was struggling with severe depression over these losses. But then on Christmas morning, ringing through the cold air, he heard the church bells playing, inspiring him to pen these words:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day

Their old, familiar carols play, 

and wild and sweet

The words repeat

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom 

Had rolled along

The unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,

The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime,

A chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth

The cannon thundered in the South, 

And with the sound

The carols drowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent

The hearth-stones of a continent,

And made forlorn

The households born

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;

“There is no peace on earth,” I said; 

“For hate is strong,

And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; 

The Wrong shall fail,

The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

I love how he spends most of the piece outlining the utter atrocities of the world around him. He paints a picture of how the world felt: bleak and hopeless. But that depth makes the turn of the final refrain all the more beautiful because we know that the truth of the line “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep” destroys any depth of pain. The God of Heaven sits enthroned above any act here on earth.

Hope is what Christmas is all about. Hope that was born to a virgin. Hope that took on flesh.

It might feel like this poem/song seems to be reading the headlines of 2020.

And in despair I bowed my head;

“There is no peace on earth,” I said; 

“For hate is strong,

And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

 

But, if we can be reminded of anything this Christmas, it’s that the true hope we find in the advent of Jesus was not only greater than the darkness that Longfellow faced when he wrote those lines, but that it still shines the light of hope into our world and hearts today.


 

Unwrapping the Gift of Christmas

Finding the perfect gift for someone in your life takes time, energy, and creativity.

It can be stressful.

A recent survey found that 37 percent of people say shopping for the right gift is the most stressful part of the holiday season.

I miss the early days of parenting when finding the right gift was easy. It didn’t matter what we picked out. My kids were more excited about all the wrapping paper and the empty boxes piled up around the living room on Christmas morning than the gifts themselves. (Confession: Sometimes, if the boxes ended up being the big hit, I would quietly return any unnoticed gifts to the store the following week.)

But those days are over.

Now, they’re older and the allure of empty boxes doesn’t have the same effect. Unfortunately for my bank account, they actually want the gifts inside. I guess growing up does that to a kid.

So now that they can appreciate a good gift, we try to find something they’ll truly love. But there is something in it for the gift-giver as well. Watching someone you love tear open a gift you specifically chose for them is thrilling.

In fact, if the box turned out to be a bigger hit than the contents, you would not only be offended, but also might wonder how the recipient was so enamored with the flash of the packaging that they missed the beauty of the gift itself.

Here’s the truth: this isn’t just a thing young kids do. As recipients of the greatest Christmas gift of all, we often find ourselves focusing on all the flash of the packaging instead of the gift within the Christmas season.

The birth of Jesus gets packaged up in traditions, parties, gadgets, trimmed in lights and busyness, and gets a big bow of delicious food laid on top. There is so much going on in this season that it’s easy to miss it. And frankly, I enjoy a lot of the packaging. Christmas is one of my favorite times of the year.

It’s fun and flashy, and it’s okay to enjoy it. But don’t miss the real gift in the midst of it all. Joyfully engage in all the stuff that comes along with Christmas, but let it only serve to enhance your focus on the most important gift of all.

Colossians 1:15-20 isn’t a typical Christmas passage because it doesn’t talk about baby Jesus in the manger. But, it is a passage that unwraps for us who this baby is and what he came to do—the real gift of Christmas.

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

— Colossians 1:15-20

There is no greater Christmas gift than Jesus – Immanuel, God with us – who put on human flesh, lived a sinless life, and died on the cross to reconcile to himself all things. Don’t miss it. This is the meaning of everything we celebrate at Christmas. It’s the gift that I hope enamors my kids most of all. All the flash and fun are meant to highlight and enhance the beauty of the real gift of Christmas—that by faith in Jesus, he has made peace by the blood of his cross.

God, the giver of this precious, perfect gift, is honored when we receive and worship Jesus at Christmas. It brings him glory when all the fun traditions, parties, gadgets, lights, busyness, and food that come with this season serve to point in celebration to him, and what truly lights up the eyes of his children is the relationship that we have with Christ Jesus our Savior.


 

Podcasts

019: Grief and the Holidays with Susan Wesley, Denise Ward, and Carrie Sutherland

In our final episode of 2019, Susan Wesley sits down with Denise Ward and Carrie Sutherland, two close friends who have each experienced tremendous loss in the last few years. They discuss their journey and how grief impacts the holiday season.

RESOURCES:
Care & Support Ministry

 

018: All is Not Calm – Focusing on Jesus in a Busy, Commercialized Christmas Season

Christmas is supposed to be about the birth of Jesus, the Savior of the world. But it’s easy to miss that with all the parties, gifts, commercials, food, and lights. Much of it is good fun, but what happens when it distracts us from the real joy of Christmas? Ryan Lehtinen sits down with Aaron Lutz and Lance Lawson to talk about how to they try (and sometimes fail) to focus their families’ hearts on Jesus in this season.

*Spoiler Alert: Beliefs about Santa Claus are discussed. If you have any young listeners within earshot, you might want to listen to this episode at another time. If you still believe in Santa, what you’re about to hear is going to be devastating.

 

017: Celebrating Advent with Your Family, with Josh and Mandy Turner

Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. It’s the season where churches around the world celebrate the coming (or advent) of Jesus and prepare their hearts for Christmas Day. In this episode, Yancey Arrington talks about the history of Advent and how it’s been celebrated by the Church for centuries. Then, he’s joined by Josh and Mandy Turner from the Clear Lake campus to talk about how their family celebrates Advent each year.